Procol Harum

the Pale

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Copyright that goes beyond the pale

Peter Aspden in The Financial Times, 17 November 2006

The stately chambers of the High Court in London were transformed into a misty evocation of the summer of love as computer programmer and former Procol Harum keyboard player Matthew Fisher tried to reclaim his place in history over the past week.

Mr Fisher has gone to court to claim a chunk of copyright for his role in composing one of the definitive anthems of the period, A Whiter Shade of Pale. He insists that the distinctive organ chords that give the 1967 song its melancholy grandeur were his invention and that his name has been unfairly omitted from the song-writing credits.

It is something of a landmark case, not so much for the decision, which has yet to be given, but for the manner in which it has been played out. Most notable of all, there is a judge, Mr Justice Blackburne, who studied music as part of his law degree and who is roughly the same age as the warring protagonists. Not for him those patronising definitions of flower-power prog-rock and sneering references to the hippy hedonism of the 1960s: he was there. He gets it.

Justice Blackburne has also installed an organ in his private quarters and confessed to the court that he may have to “work through” the sheet music evidence on his own. He will have studied a melody that, by Mr Fisher’s own account, owes much to Bach’s Sleepers Awake cantata, a recording of which  he bought in Paris in 1961, but also to Buddy Holly and to the Teddy Bears’ hit To Know Him Is To Love Him. Gary Brooker, the song’s nominal co-composer, by contrast, claims he was inspired by a different Bach melody on a cigar advertisement.

So who, precisely, composed what? The fact that the judge in this case has a sophisticated understanding of melodic counterpoint does not take us so far. He has a devilishly difficult decision to make. By the late 1960s, the musical soundscape of Britain was already a seething, eclectic mix  of styles that was liberally plundered by ambitious young song writers. The baroque could filter through to the present day, via a clever television commercial, and no one batted a sleepy eyelid.

That is even more the case today: but while samples and remixes make a mockery of authorial integrity, the growth of ringtones, downloads and the like make it an ever more lucrative business. Catchy riffs have urgently acquired a price: that is why we have the nostalgic strains of Procol Harum’s nonsensical masterpiece absurdly drifting through the highest court in the land, some 40 years after its creation.

Expect much more of this. Courts should be fitted out with a variety of instruments and stages constructed next to the witness boxes. Lawyers could usefully take singing lessons. And we will still, however long it takes, be debating what it means to skip the light fandango.

More about the AWSoP lawsuit



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